Sonic Sensations: Picture Books About Nina Simone and Jimi Hendrix – The New York Times

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Picture Books

A Story of Nina Simone
Written by Traci N. Todd
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
The Story of Guitar Legend Jimi Hendrix
Written by Charles R. Smith Jr.
Illustrated by Edel Rodriguez
Writing children’s literature about our most celebrated 20th-century Black musicians is a tough needle to thread. The stories of their origins and rise to stardom are so deeply entangled with the forces of systemic racism — Jim Crow segregation, socioeconomic inequality and the insult of everyday discrimination — that any honest biographical profile for young readers has to walk a fine line between conveying the hardships of Black childhood and celebrating the beauty and wonder of youthful musical genius taking root (sometimes as a response to said hardships). The best in this genre strike a tone that highlights the genuine aspirations and distinctive craft of the budding artist while offering a primer on the specific historical challenges faced by a people fighting for freedom.
Although drastically different books, both Traci N. Todd’s luminous “Nina” (with pictures by the award-winning Christian Robinson), which explores the life and career of the civil-rights-era musician Nina Simone, and Charles R. Smith Jr.’s psychedelic love letter “Song for Jimi” (with pictures by the Cuban American illustrator Edel Rodriguez), which follows the pioneering rock ’n’ roll guitar hero Jimi Hendrix, achieve this difficult balance.
Both are only the second picture books to be published about their singular subjects, and both are visually rapturous productions whose illustrations add striking content to narratives that combine artistic exceptionalism apparent from a young age with complicated relationships to family, mentors, acquaintances and communities.
Robinson imbues “Nina” with sumptuous colors — earthy tones for Simone’s Tryon, N.C., roots; oceanic blue for an Atlantic City nightclub. His elegantly simple figures recall the work of Ezra Jack Keats and occasionally Charles M. Schulz. Rodriguez works with a dazzling palette of intense colors to convey a mood symphony of the Seattle guitarist’s evolving experimentations with instrumentality, music genres and sounds. To read either book is to slip into the immersive universe of a Black musical prodigy turned grown performer who, from a young age, pursued sonic curiosities and passions and ended up producing art that changed the course of popular culture.
Todd, however, positions “Nina” as a story about the legacy of a musician who realized at the height of her career that “an artist’s duty … is to reflect the times,” a line that’s been cited by activist pop stars ever since. The book’s epigraph, quoting a remark Simone made at Morehouse College in 1969, sets the tone early: “When I die … I’m gonna know that I left something for [my people] to build on. That is my reward.” It’s a heavy opener for a picture book, but it primes the reader for Simone’s pivot in the early 1960s toward writing and performing songs of the Black freedom struggle — music that would become both her signature and a means to address the racial tyranny that framed her girlhood in the segregated South.
Todd’s narration doesn’t shy from this turbulence, frankly recounting how the artist born Eunice Kathleen Waymon navigated her giftedness in such an environment, mentored and encouraged by a white English immigrant piano teacher. (“Black folks … smiled with pride” when they saw her, which “made her feel warm and good.” White folks “pointed and said, ‘That’s Miss Mazzy’s colored girl’ which did not feel good at all.”)
The well-known episode from Simone’s memoir in which a young Eunice looked on from the stage at the humiliating scene of her parents’ removal from the front row of her segregated local recital is here rendered as a moment of impactful recognition of injustice; candid rage; and brave defiance. Her refusal to play until they were permitted to return to their seats is the pointed marker in the book between her childhood and her leap to young adulthood as a striving Juilliard student pursuing her classical music dreams (and subsequently experiencing the sting of rejection from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute due to what she maintained was a racist admissions process).
Anger, pain, disappointment and confusion, in other words, are given room to breathe (though Todd steers clear of Simone’s later struggles with mental health), but these are not the only forces that shape her artistry. Simone’s precocity, which shines through in the image of a diapered toddler reaching up to touch a single key on the piano, is nurtured in intimate moments sitting on her father’s lap at the keyboard, letting him guide her as they play “good-time jazz” together, and on Sundays when she provides the rhythmic and “rolling” accompaniment to her minister mother’s sermons. Todd brings nuance to Simone’s musicianship in ways that should prove instructive to curious young readers — from the details of Miss Mazzy’s classical pedagogy (she taught Eunice to “curl her fingers, straighten her back, and play concertos and fugues”) to Simone’s hit cover of “I Loves You, Porgy,” a “dark and deep” rendition of the Gershwin classic that was markedly distinct from Billie Holiday’s version.
The journey to merge her astonishing virtuosity and professional achievements with her bold activism is summed up by the arresting portrait of the artist seated at her baby grand and flanked by four little Black girls. A replica of a burning church peeks out from underneath the instrument’s lid. (Four young Black girls were killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.)
“Song for Jimi” also leans into the triumph of its subject’s ability to cultivate a diversity of sounds reflecting a multifaceted personal history. Its lyrical title page epigram — “a sonic tactician, / a Picasso with a pick, / painting in the blues tradition” — highlights Smith’s focus on the intricacies and ambition of Hendrix’s musicmaking as well as the roots of his artistry. Structured as a song, the book is divided into five “verses” plus an “outro” and a provocatively titled “interlude” that closes the story of Hendrix’s life on a Monterey Pop Festival high note rather than with the tragedy of his early death (the narrative makes no mention of the artist’s substance abuse). Each of these rhyming verse poems is infused, as the author’s note indicates, with a musical style central to Hendrix’s repertoire — from blues and early R&B to the psychedelic rock he would revolutionize. As in “Nina,” there’s an abiding sense of outsiderism and individualism.
The child who went by the name of James (Jimmy) Marshall found relief from poverty and his parents’ domestic conflicts in drawing, in the spirit of his Indigenous grandmother, in the rock ’n’ roll sounds on the radio and in the limitlessness of his own imagination. Rodriguez translates this energy into a rich array of blues, purples, yellows and reds that saturate the page and allow Hendrix to appear across the arc of his life in multiple shades and colors. The whimsical bends and sensual curves in some of Rodriguez’s figures suggest a combination of the work of the Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (a figure of the Harlem Renaissance) and that of the theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
Though steeped in Black musical traditions nurtured, in part, while performing on the Chitlin’ Circuit, Hendrix is likened to “a musical sponge” who drew from everything around him in order to create “a new sound … an odd sound … a rock-folk rhythm-and-blues sound.” From his tour of duty in the U.S. military, to his time playing down south in Nashville and up north in the Village, to his explosive arrival in Britain, “Song for Jimi” emphasizes Hendrix’s commitment to self-invention, his eccentricity and his penchant for fantastical tropes and proto-Afrofuturist sounds that “screeched past the stars, / echoed off the moon, / and earthquaked planet Mars.”
Smith’s book includes a timeline of pivotal events in the musician’s life, a playlist of songs that inspired the author, a discography and references. But absent from the bibilography are works that reflect newer conversations about Hendrix that focus in greater detail on his return to performing with fellow Black musicians, like Billy Cox and Buddy Miles on the “Band of Gypsys” live album, shortly before his death — a circling back to community not unlike Simone’s. That story is one that deserves its own picture book treatment.
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